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For Durango’s divergent youths, The Hub provides a haven

Therapeutic school caters to students who have needs beyond what traditional institutions can provide
Otis Eckardt, 18, laughs as he talks about being a student at The Hub versus being a student at Durango High School. The relationships between students and staff, such as Hub high school teacher Steve Yeaton, left, and Executive Director of La Plata Youth Services Jason St. Mary, right, lie at the core of the program’s success. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For the 10 Durango high school students enrolled in The Hub program, the typical school day is unlike anything most students experience.

A staff member checks in with each student upon arrival and helps the student to assess their needs and goals for the day. The assessment takes into account a broad range of factors, from the somatic to the emotional.

Maybe a student needs some extra time with their therapist, wishes to complete a midterm or needs to eat a healthy meal. Or perhaps the day’s goal is “extra snugs” with the program’s therapy dog, Milo.

All of this is possible at The Hub.

The program is the product of collaborative effort by Durango School District 9-R, La Plata Youth Services and La Plata County Human Services. The shared leadership team is composed of Samantha Tower, Hub program administrator and principal of Big Picture High School; Jason St. Mary, Hub program director and executive director of LPYS; Emily Murphy, supervisor of therapeutic programming at La Plata County Human Services; and Dr. Heidi McMillan, medical director of the Hub.

Hub program students from left, Jimmy Forquer, 16; Brian Spurgeon, 15; Therapeutic Service Aid Emily McCue; Hub high school teacher Steve Yeaton; student Otis Eckardt, 18; Executive Director of La Plata Youth Services Jason St. Mary; and student Paris Miller, 16. The group is jovial and honest as they discuss their experiences in school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Tower has worked for the district for nearly a decade. In her capacity as an administrator, she saw how the school district lacked the capacity to meet the needs of students who were not thriving in its schools.

“We were, as a school system, trying to meet needs that were, at times, outside of what we could provide,” she said. “And what I was watching was students really not get the foundational interventions that they need.”

In 2018, Tower began to pull in community partners and assess areas in which the school system fell short. She led the district in conducting a yearlong needs assessment and reached the conclusion that a therapeutic day school that focused on the wellness of the child, reduced barriers to basic therapeutic health care and could increase health equity would greatly benefit the highest need students.

The program, as the name would imply, is a hub where the community’s resources can converge in support of these students. In addition to the leadership team, the staff of the high school program includes a full-time teacher, a therapeutic service aid, a therapist and a caseworker, as well as an additional contracted therapist.

The Hub first opened during the 2020-21 school year offering part-time services to middle school students. Now in its third school year, the program offers full-time schooling four days per week to high school students, as well as up to three half-days of schooling to students in sixth through eighth grades.

In need of a new approach

The Hub is intended as a last resort for students who have exhausted all other existing avenues of support in their schools. When a student is referred to the program, staff members do a holistic intake assessment.

“It involves not only just their social emotional health, (but also) their academic status, their medical needs, their community needs,” Murphy said. “(It asks questions such as) does the student want to get a job? Does the student want to learn how to do martial arts? How can we find this student’s strengths and utilize them in this program?”

Both Paris Miller, 16, and Otis Eckhardt, 18, began their high school careers at Durango High School and transferred to Big Picture before landing at The Hub. Both described feeling uncomfortable socially and unsupported from a mental health perspective at their previous schools.

“I wasn’t really learning anything – I got my credits but I wasn’t learning and I wasn’t doing well with like mental health stuff,” Eckhardt said. “So this year, I advocated for myself to be in The Hub program.”

The high level of self-awareness that Eckhardt and his peers demonstrate is likely the result of The Hub’s pedagogy. Tower said one of the program’s primary goals is to get students in a regulated brain space where they are able to learn.

“I don’t think I can overemphasize that piece – that is the reason for the program,” McMillan said. “We do know that when we ... don’t have access to basic needs, our thinking brain is gone.”

For the high school students who attend The Hub full time, the novelty of the program’s approach and its effect on their learning is not lost.

“The staff definitely makes sure that you’re OK mentally, because if you’re not OK mentally or if you’re having a rough day, you’re not going to do school,” Miller said.

“In the morning, they’ll ask you if you need something. If you tell them you need space, they’ll give you space for the day, if you need food, we’ve got our own kitchen so we can eat – it’s pretty good,” said sophomore Brian Spurgeon, 15. “It’s my favorite part.”

In addition to the kitchen, the program’s space consists of an unconventionally arranged classroom, several common areas with couches, beanbags and tables, as well as offices for medical check-ins and therapy.

All four students interviewed for this story described the disinterest and lack of engagement they felt at their home schools.

“I’d rather go and do anything else,” Spurgeon said. “And by anything, I mean anything else. I’d rather just go sit and watch the clock for an hour than go to class.”

And yet, as McMillan pointed out, one of the signs of The Hub’s success is that its students regularly and voluntarily show up to school and are eager to be there.

Spurgeon said he now actively enjoys coming to school.

“It’s just a really nice place to be,” he said. “... It’s not an unsafe school, you get to really know your people.”

Unconventional, but effective
Even the interview with The Durango Herald became a learning opportunity for students in The Hub to consider how to communicate their experiences and feelings in a manner appropriate to the setting. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

St. Mary said the virtue of the program lies within the flexibility it affords to students to learn in an unconventional setting while still earning high school credit.

“That’s the beauty of it: we individualize the entire day,” St. Mary said. "... There isn’t a traditional day-to-day. At any given time students will be out doing community-based activities.”

Once students are enrolled at The Hub, their days are filled with anything from semi-typical classroom lessons to therapy to programs with community partners. Miller has been mentored by a Durango photographer; Eckhardt said he gained confidence by learning to spin plates while on stilts at a Durango circus school; students have access to yoga classes, music lessons, jujitsu, cooking classes and much more.

The goal is to allow students to engage with their passions as well as their budding interests.

“I think it’s a brilliant model because it really leverages what we have in the community rather than necessarily creating everything new,” McMillan said.

Paris Miller, 16, has been a student at The Hub since September and says the services it provides have vastly improved her ability and desire to learn. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The opportunities that The Hub provides and the relationships that staff members work to build with the students delivers a clear message, which Eckhardt stated succinctly: “We’re cared about.”

Even the students’ group interview with The Durango Herald became a learning moment. The four students who participated and their teacher, Steve Yeaton, discussed how they might want to share their stories ahead of time.

“We were like, ‘Can we be honest? Or do we need to sugarcoat this?’” Eckhardt said. “So we were honest, and then we filtered it. And so instead of a ton of cussing and bashing, it’s now instead filtered.”

St. Mary, perhaps fearing that the students might have given the impression that the relationships between students and staff members were not honest, quickly asked the group if they felt filtered at school.

Emily McCue, therapeutic service aid at The Hub, brings Milo, a certified therapy dog, with her. Students call Milo “the best thing about The Hub.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“No!” one student blurted out, preceded by an expletive. The entire room, including St. Mary, Yeaton and the therapeutic service aid, Emily McCue, shook with laughter.

The honesty and engagement between staff members and students is critical to the program’s success.

“Not including youths’ voice is a travesty that has been incorporated with adult-centric thinking for generations,” St. Mary said.

Because this is the first year of the full-time high school program, plans remain unclear for how and when students will return to their home schools. But staff members say the intention is to return kids to their home schools equipped with the tools to thrive.

An eye toward intentional expansion

The Hub currently receives funding from the Colorado Health Foundation and the office of Attorney General Phil Weiser, as well as Durango School District.

The program’s leadership team is well aware that the need for its services dwarfs its capacity. And although the team intends to offer similar embedded services throughout the district and county at all grade levels, they are moving cautiously toward that goal.

While the level of personalized engagement provided at The Hub may not be replicable on a large scale, leadership hopes to disseminate aspects of the model throughout the school system.

“I hope that over time, the community (and) the schools can start to see the benefit, the reality of how really focusing on relationships first and foremost and comprehensively, can lead to greater learning,” Tower said.

The challenge of weaning the program off grants and onto a more sustainable long-term source of funding currently prevents its rapid expansion. St. Mary said the team is intently focused on ensuring the program’s longevity and that methodical growth is a critical aspect of achieving that goal.

Jimmy Forquer, 16, and Brian Spurgeon, 15, said they struggled to muster the will to go to class at their home schools, but said they enjoy showing up to The Hub each day. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

While the prospect of growth looms, even The Hub’s leadership team remains focused on the students who show up every day.

“This group of people cares so deeply about all students,” Tower said, emphasizing the all-encompassing nature of the statement. “... We just love kids here and there’s not one person that we have on our team that’s going to give up on a young person that we’re serving.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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